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Search for aliens heats up as scientists prepare huge survey of the sky

Published May 9th, 2018 4:20PM EDT
breakthrough listen

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The never-ending search for extraterrestrial life is about to get a big boost thanks to a new research effort from the Breakthrough Listen project. Breakthrough Listen is a scientific endeavor dreamt up by scientists who believe we should be listening for aliens rather than looking for them. The program uses radio dishes to hunt for signs of life, such as communications signals drifting in space from intelligent civilizations.

The group is ramping up its efforts and will be using the radio scanning hardware at the Parkes Observatory in Australia to scan a larger chunk of the sky than ever before, with an incredible 1,500 of “listening” scheduled already.

Breakthrough Listen, which was created by researchers at SETI — the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence — will be gathering a huge amount of data. The newly-upgraded tools are capable of handling as much as 130 gigabits of data per second. In total, the researchers expect to gather nearly 100 petabytes of data during the experiment, and they’re hoping that somewhere in the noise is a signal that suggests intelligent origins.

“With these new capabilities, we are scanning our Galaxy in unprecedented detail,” Danny Price of the Breakthrough Listen project said in a statement. “By trawling through these huge datasets for signatures of technological civilizations, we hope to uncover evidence that our planet, among the hundreds of billions in our galaxy, is not the only where intelligent life has arisen.”

The ultimate goal of the Breakthrough Listen project is to scan one million stars, including those in neighboring galaxies, in the hopes that a radio signal from some intelligent civilization gets caught in the net. Nobody can really say what the odds are that the project will be successful, but by listening for technological indicators of life rather than trying to see them, the scientists hope that they can prove the existence of extraterrestrials at far-off locations that could never be directly observed (in a visual sense) with current technology.

Last last year, Breakthrough Listen set its sights on the mysterious Oumuamua asteroid after it flung itself around the Sun and back out into space. Some in the scientific community openly wondered if it could possibly have extraterrestrial origins, and the group decided to listen for signs of radio communication coming from the strange visitor. They heard nothing but silence. Let’s hope this new initiative returns something more.